Maryland is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. One item that could be trimmed with no pain to taxpayers and a potential boon to communities is the prison budget.

Over the past 20 years, Maryland's prison budget has exploded to nearly $1 billion. In recent years, per capita spending on corrections grew at four times the rate of spending on higher education.

Also over the past 20 years, while the number of violent offenders in prisons has doubled, the number of nonviolent prisoners has tripled. Add to this the fact that the incarceration rate for African Americans in Maryland is seven times that of whites and the rate for Latinos is twice that of whites.

I have introduced legislation to lower corrections costs while creating less expensive, more thoughtful programs to manage nonviolent offenders in the community.

By releasing inmates who pose little risk to the public, funding could be reallocated for neighborhood-based services that are more effective than prison at reducing future crime. From 2000 to 2001, for example, New York state's prison population declined by 2,600 inmates, yielding millions of dollars in savings for state taxpayers. More important, New York's serious crime rate declined by 5.6 percent during the same period.

By reforming parole and sentencing laws and by diverting to less costly programs money that would otherwise keep drug offenders in prison, other states have begun attacking corrections waste.

Maryland must end its mindless march toward more and more prisons and begin cutting the corrections budget.

SALIMA SILER MARRIOTT

Delegate (D-Baltimore)

Maryland House of Delegates

Annapolis